Diamondbacks prospect Cristian Mena focused on what he can control after offseason trade

Feb 27, 2024, 3:31 PM

Cristian Mena...

Pitcher Cristian Mena of the Arizona Diamondbacks during spring training at Salt River Fields. (Arizona Sports Photo/Alex Weiner)

(Arizona Sports Photo/Alex Weiner)

SCOTTSDALE — Prospect Cristian Mena is picking up all he can in his first spring training camp with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Wearing No. 64, the 21-year-old pitcher’s locker in the clubhouse at Salt River Fields is right by Eduardo Rodriguez (No. 57), one of the veterans he gets to learn from and observe daily.

Mena is getting acclimated to a new environment following a trade to Arizona after he spent the past couple seasons in the Chicago White Sox’s farm system. He ascended quickly to Triple-A last year at 20 years old, and although he is behind several more experienced arms competing for roles with the major league club, the right-hander is focused on his own development.

“Controlling what I can control. Just having fun doing what I know how to do,” Mena told Arizona Sports. “I’m good at watching and observing and absorbing. I just try to learn every day from the older people and pick up some positive things from them.”

Mena was taken by surprise getting traded away from the team he signed with as a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic but found positives with his family. He watched the postseason but was not too familiar with the Diamondbacks at the time.

Arizona general manager Mike Hazen dealt outfielder Dominic Fletcher to Chicago to acquire the pitcher he hopes will be in the mix for major league innings this year. Pitching depth is always welcome, while the D-backs plucked from a position of excess.

With Tommy Henry, Ryne Nelson and Slade Cecconi vying for a spot in the rotation with MLB experience, Mena appears likely to start in the minor leagues. Reno is a difficult place to keep the ball in the yard, which Hazen sees to be a beneficial challenge for the young arm.

The early reviews have been positive so far in camp.

“Very impressive, great pickup by us for a young guy who has this kind of feel. If we waited a year, we’d have no chance to get him so I think we got him at the right time,” pitching coach Brent Strom told Arizona Sports.

“… Here’s the thing that impresses me, for a young guy, he has great command of his offspeed pitches. And usually that’s not the case when you’re 21 years old.”

Mena was effective in his first stretch of minor league ball in Single-A to start 2022, earning two promotions that season.

He spent most of 2023 in Double-A (114 innings) and produced a 4.66 ERA with a 27.9% strikeout rate, although walks (11.3%) and long balls (1.34 per 9 IP) drove his ERA up.

“This year, I feel more confident with my fastball because it’ll be a little bit harder this year, and I feel more comfortable with the command,” Mena said.

Mena said he has increased the velocity on his fastball from 93-94 mph to 95-96 mph, which he deploys with a smooth overhand delivery.

He showed off that uptick during his spring training debut Monday against the Oakland Athletics — a scoreless inning with a walk and flare single. Strom mentioned tweaking Mena’s fastball usage, perhaps throwing in some two-seamers.

The prospect boasts a plus curveball with a 60 grade from MLB pipeline and FanGraphs, along with a slider and changeup.

“The pitch profiles have actually been better than expected in some regard,” D-backs new director of player development Shaun Larkin told Arizona Sports. “He is sitting mid-to-upper 90s mph at this point. He’s fitting in really nicely. Everyone’s really excited for not only the age, but also the stuff that’s coming out of his hand.”

Chicago is looking at Fletcher playing regularly this season — something the outfielder was not facing in Arizona — and filled a need with the trade. But White Sox general manager Chris Getz still made sure to compliment Mena’s makeup at Cactus League Media Day last week.

“When you make a trade, it’s not easy considering you know the player for X many years and you grow to admire how they go about their business and you project what they’re going to be at the major league level,” Getz said. “Cristian is going to be a quality major league starter. There’s no doubt in my mind, but to get a Dominic Fletcher, you’ve got to give up something you like.”

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